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Directed by Joseph Losey in 1968, Secret Ceremony, which is based on the short story Ceremonia secreta by Marco Denevi, opens atop a double-decker bus in London, England. Here we meet Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) and Cenci Englehard (Mia Farrow) and quickly realize that their meeting is no chance encounter. Leonora's life has taken some dark turns since she lost her child, she now has a pretty serious drinking problem and makes her living as a member of the world's oldest profession. Despite her hard lifestyle, her beauty hasn't faded, but clearly there are some psychological scars that run quite deep. Cenci, on the other hand, is quite immature and, having lost her mother, no sees Leonora as a surrogate. Soon enough, Cenci has asked Leonora to move in.
Not really wanting for money, Cenci's house is quite massive and ornate, and occasionally inhabited by her two aunts, Hannah (Peggy Ashcroft) and Hilda (Pamela Brown), who stop by often to talk to their niece and generally just gossip… and occasionally to steal from their naïve niece. The money that Cenci lives quite comfortably off was willed to her by her late father, but complicating matters for everyone is the presence of her step-father, Albert (Robert Mitchum). He's a shady character if ever there was one, and there's clearly a strange relationship between he and Cenci, and soon by default, with Leonora as well.
A fairly twisted psychological thriller, Secret Ceremony deals with some rather sordid subjects: molestation and incest being the two most obvious. Without going into spoiler territory, the movie certainly suggests that all of this and more are part of the goings on in Cenci's home, though exactly who we can trust is left up in the air for much of the film, all of the characters hear having ulterior movies, some more obvious than others. It's an interesting story and well-told in this picture, the second collaboration between Losey and Elizabeth Taylor, the two having worked together the year before on Boom!.
And Taylor is quite good here, well cast in this rather strange role. She looks great and handles the material well, portraying her characters as unnaturally maternal with Farrow, and convincing enough when she does it. Farrow is great here as well, delivering a performance as effective and subtle as Taylor's, the two showing really impressive chemistry in pretty much all of the scenes that they share with one another. Mitchum, on the other hand, is impressive mainly for how sleazy he manages to make his character feel to the audience. Much of the credit for this also goes to the dialogue conjured up by George Tabori's screenplay, but Mitchum definitely delivers it with slimy gusto, creating a seriously memorable role. Ashcroft and Brown are also quite good in their respective supporting performances.
Technical details are strong. This had a decent budget behind it and it shows. Losey paces the picture quite well, giving us enough character development to make the suspense in the second half of the picture pay off quite nicely. The score from Richard Rodney Bennett is quite strong and Gerry Fisher's cinematography equally so. The central location used as the main house in the film is also perfect for the story, a bit of a gothic relic still surviving in the London of the swinging sixties. It may be, at times, an overly melodramatic depiction of a twisted codependent relationship, but it's seriously entertaining stuff.
Secret Ceremony comes back to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics ‘from a brand new HD master' on a 50GB disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen with the feature taking up just over 33GBs of space on the disc. Generally speaking, it looks great. There's a lot of detail here, plenty of depth and texture throughout, and the color reproduction looks perfect. Black levels are nice and deep and there are no problems with any noise reduction or edge enhancement. The strong bit rate ensures that there are no noticeable issues with any compression artifacts, and the image is quite clean, showing a natural amount of film grain but not much at all in the way of actual print damage. Excellent work.
The 16-bit English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track sounds just fine. The track is clean and properly balanced, providing clean and clear dialogue and nice depth to the score. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion, everything sounds quite good here. Subtitles are available in English only.
The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary track with writer Tim Lucas. Like most of Lucas' tracks, this too is an impeccably researched dissection of the movie. He covers the history of the cast and crew and provides plenty of biographical details but also details the different sets and locations used in the film, the effectiveness of the camerawork and the score, some of the themes that the film explores and exploits, the source novel that inspired the picture in the first place and lots more. It's a track that hits the right balance between informed opinion, analysis and fact-based trivia.
Aside from that, we also get a trailer for the feature and trailers for a few other Kino Lorber properties.
Secret Ceremony is an interesting thriller made all the more so thanks to a really strong cast and some solid direction from Losey. Kino's Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent and the commentary from Tim Lucas is a welcome addition to the disc for sure. Recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.